ON THE AGENDA | MAY 20TH, 2019 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Geo-Locating Protests and Tech's Role in Advancing Movements, Part II

A story from Rewiring Democracy

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics, explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this last installment of the Rewiring Democracy blog series, we’ll explore how technology can be used to create new opportunities for people to connect and work together. Take a look at “Geo-Locating Protests Part I,” which discusses how new technologies can be employed to organize movements and foster community engagement.

TWO MAPS COLLIDE

The technology of geo-location, or geo-fencing, relies on the fact that many smartphone applications track our physical locations, and many social media platforms recommend or require our mailing addresses. It is becoming difficult to hide where we are and where we live.

Meanwhile, more and more people are voluntarily connecting their digital lives and their residential locations in “hyperlocal online spaces”, because these platforms provide convenient ways to organize politically, build community, and solve daily-life problems. Some of these hyperlocal networks are easier for outsiders to access than others, but once you recruit a few people who are already inside a neighborhood network, you can more quickly reach many others.

This is a new asset for organizers, because it allows them to reach and mobilize people in ways that match up with the political process. “You can have a million people talking about something on Twitter, and Congress may not care,” says Keesha Gaskins-Nathan of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “But if you can show a member of Congress that there are 1,000 people in their district talking about something, that representative will care.”

As people join hyperlocal networks or are identified by organizers according to their geographic location, they are bringing together two previously separate maps of how people connect and how power is distributed: the old map, based on physical geography, in which residents belong to jurisdictions according to where they live, and decisions are made by officials elected to represent those places; and the new map, based on digital connections and communities. The first map still matters, because it is the framework by which political representation is configured, public decisions are made, and public funding is allocated. Since many people live in communities that are economically, racially, and culturally homogeneous, and since people are increasingly distrustful of public officials and unwilling to go along with any compromises reached by those officials, the first map doesn’t provide many possibilities for avoiding political gridlock.

The second map matters because it shows other ways that people are connecting and communicating that both deepen and extend beyond geographic connections. The fact that these two maps are now joined in many locations could create new possibilities for organizers: neighbors can join together more easily to pressure elected officials, and elected officials can more easily reach citizens to get their input on policy questions. These networks may also present new ways of overcoming gridlock by fostering communication between people in different jurisdictions. Even without capitalizing on hyperlocal networks, examples like “On the Table” (see page 17) have been effective at bringing people of different backgrounds together to discuss common concerns. Notions of space and place are changing, and all of this will affect how we think about community and neighborhoods.

WHO OWNS THE PUBLIC SQUARE?

One key distinction about the second map – the one that depicts how people are connected online – is that most of the platforms and networks through which people communicate are owned by private corporations. Social media is dominated by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other tech giants, and the most extensive set of hyperlocal online networks is Nextdoor, another for-profit company. Google has received criticism for tracking the locations of its users; the company has denied that this information is used for targeting messages and advertisements.

For observers like Micah Sifry of Civic Hall, corporate ownership of the platforms for online communication is an enormous red flag. “Public life cannot be built on private servers. It’s that simple,” he writes.

Other observers point to silver linings in how tech corporations support online communication and networks. “The big platforms are attuned to the potential for manipulation now – they are monitoring trends in fake news and figuring out how to deal with them,” says Northeastern University’s David Lazer. “The companies see it in their business interest to not be manipulated.”

Corporate control of the public square may have an ominous ring to it, but there are certainly potential upsides and downsides, depending on the situation. Even when authoritarian regimes try to use social media for their own purposes, the people living under authoritarian regimes are probably better able to get unbiased information if they have access to Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and other platforms than if they don’t. In the U.S., the role of for-profit companies seems more problematic: they may be relatively tolerant of citizens “colonizing” their platforms – especially since that may bring them more profit – but it is unclear how far they will go to define and protect individual rights.

Ultimately, the geo-location of protest, the proliferation of hyperlocal online spaces, and the influence of corporations in public life may produce even higher levels of polarization than we have witnessed so far. “Polarization is real,” says Lazer. “It’s not an academic argument anymore. The phenomenon of ‘affective polarization’ – for example, when you are concerned about your adult child getting married to someone of the opposite party – has become a real problem, which it wasn’t fifty years ago.” If you get political messages on your phone whenever you go near a clinic…if friends ask you to protest at a restaurant when a public official is inside… if neighbors want to engage you in political discussion online…then polarization may become even more present and personal.

The fact that these shifts will make it more common for people to engage each other face-to-face may also make it easier to actually address our differences in productive ways. But for now, Zuckerman feels that the negative aspects outweigh the positive: “Different groups of people now have totally different universes of fact. This is not unprecedented, but it is particularly bad now because social media amplifies the conflicts. We’re heading for a very loud nasty moment.”

Enjoyed the series? Be sure to look through the full report for more case studies on how technology impacts democracy and civic engagement.

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